Expert Advice

Why teenagers find their parents so embarrassing

It's not news that teenagers don't consider their parents 'cool' but the research behind why is interesting - psychologists even have a name for it.
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When a job change meant I would start catching the same bus to work every morning that my 15-year-old daughter caught for school, I was excited.

“This is going to be awesome,” I gushed. “We can sit together and how many mums and daughters get to do that?”

Her response wasn’t super-enthusiastic but I put it down to her being in a bit of a bad mood.

For the first couple of weeks we sat together but I was surprised when, after a few days, she laid down ground rules.

“Okay, I always sit in the same seat,” she said, “and that’s by the window and you’re not to sit in my seat. And don’t talk to me and don’t look at me.”

“Not even to say goodbye?,” I whimpered. No, not even to say goodbye.

A couple more weeks passed until one evening my 15-year-old AND her 16-year-old sister confronted me at the dinner table.

“Mum, what were you doing on the bus today?,” they demanded.

I had no idea what they meant.

“When you were leaning out from your seat and you looked like you were going to fall out into the aisle.”

Oh, that’s right. “I was just trying to read this little badge on the back of a girl’s school bag.”

The disdain in the air made my salad curl.

“Mum, Amy [15-year-old] doesn’t want to sit with you on the bus,” my 16-year-old announced.

To some, this may sound harsh and I’m not going to lie, the words stung like you wouldn’t believe.

But maybe I should have seen it coming: teenagers find their parents embarrassing.

While this is hardly a revelation the reasons behind why are interesting. Registered psychologist Dr Ruth Jillings explains, “That self-consciousness and reluctance to be ‘seen in public’ with their parents is a normal part of development. It starts very early in the teenage years and tapers off somewhere around 16.”

She says, “They’re mostly consumed with how they look and what others think of how they look. But they are genuinely convinced that all eyes are on them, and this conviction is so certain it even has a name. It has been labelled the ‘imaginary audience’ phenomenon, where teens truly believe there is an audience watching them at all times.”

This actually makes them hugely vulnerable and rather than be offended by it, Dr Jillings suggests parents be mindful of and sensitive to it.

Factor in that they’re also going through these developmental stages and the situation becomes even clearer:

a) Separation – pulling away from their parents, necessary to become independent. Teens withdraw from family activities and share less with you.

b) Differentiation – where they experiment with looks and interests that are nothing like their parents’ to forge their own identity and become an individual.

c) Opposition – where they actively and passively challenge their parents’ requests (again, necessary so they learn how to stand up for themselves and cut their own path).

Catching the school bus with your mum seriously undermines all of those things, I can see that.

“The thing is, while they might feel all of this embarrassment, they might still also be trying to avoid hurting your feelings,” Dr Jillings points out.

My daughter’s luke-warm response to news of our new bussing arrangement backs this. Rather than tell me outright that the idea mortified her, she said nothing and even tolerated the seat-sharing until I blew the conditions that she felt she could work with.

The good news is this phase passes – and bus rides eventually become something that mother and child can take joy in sharing together again.

We’ve just got to ride it out.

Dr Ruth Jillings is a registered psychologist who specialises in stress and family relationships, and has survived raising three teens. To contact her, email her at [email protected].

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